Slate editorial director Levin examines the Ronald Reagan–era political trope about welfare queens in its most extreme case.
Linda Taylor made a big mistake when, in 1974, she called Chicago police to report a burglary with a “weird list” of items taken: a refrigerator, a stove, elephant figurines, stereo speakers, and “thousands of dollars’ worth of household furnishings.” The investigating detective thought the list weird, too; in his ensuing investigation, he discovered that Taylor, who went by many names and, as a person who could pass as black, white, Jewish, Native American, and Hispanic and who seemed to be ageless, had proven to be a master of impersonation. Her skillful gaming of the welfare system had netted her a handsome income, complete with fur coats and buckets of jewelry—and then there was insurance fraud, bigamy, and a host of other crimes, including, perhaps, more than one murder. Taylor went to prison and was essentially forgotten, dying of a heart attack in 2002. She lived on as a caricature, however. On the presidential campaign trail, Reagan referred to "welfare queens” who bilked the government categorically. Levin nimbly explores Taylor’s life in a story that becomes more complex the more it’s revealed. The tale encompasses an astonishingly prolific criminal career as well as issues of race (“a light complexion could, in certain circumstances, allow a biracial person in the Deep South to travel between two very different worlds”), mental illness, and self-invention, to say nothing of politics and the essentialism that Reagan commonly practiced, distilling people into categories and making an instance of malfeasance into a pattern of behavior. As the author shows in this excellent piece of true-crime writing, Taylor’s case is entirely rare, but the potent political symbolism it inspired certainly did no favors to those who truly needed welfare assistance in the years since.
In the end, a politician’s reductive sloganeering finds some support here but is ultimately found wanting. A top-notch study of an exceedingly odd moment in history.